Staff Sgt. Darren J. Cunningham, a 22-year Army veteran who was described by friends and family as gregarious and fun-loving, was buried yesterday under gray skies at Arlington National Cemetery.

Cunningham, 40, of Groton, Mass., was killed Sept. 30 by a mortar shell in Baghdad when his unit came under attack. He was assigned to the 89th Military Police Brigade at Fort Hood, Tex.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) attended the graveside service, speaking to Cunningham's family and placing a yellow bouquet on the grave.

According to newspaper accounts, Cunningham joined the Army immediately after graduating from Groton-Dunstable Regional High School. One of Cunningham's teachers, Bill Bauch, told the Lowell Sun newspaper: "I remember him talking about wanting to go into the military one day, to serve his country." Although Cunningham was in his class 26 years ago, Bauch said he still "could see his smile."

One of Cunningham's best friends, Dean Beresford, told the newspaper that Cunningham was a strong athlete. They met in elementary school and played varsity basketball as high school juniors and seniors. They graduated in 1982.

College was not for Cunningham, his friend said. Instead, he wanted the discipline, education and travel that the military offered.

"He was a great guy," Beresford told the Sun. "Everybody loved him. 'Boisterous' is a word that comes to mind. Lively. A lot of fun, a good friend to everybody."

Cunningham spent much of his career at Fort Hood, his sister told the Groton Landmark. In 1991, he served as a platoon sergeant in Iraq as part of the Persian Gulf War. He also had been deployed to South Korea. This year, part of his job in Iraq was training Iraqi police officers, the newspaper said.

His family heard from him a day before his death, when Cunningham said he would be coming home a month early, according to the Sun. The family, ecstatic over his news, was devastated upon hearing that he died when a mortar round apparently hit the barracks where he was sleeping about 4 a.m., newspaper accounts said.

"Darren died doing what he wanted to do," his sister Kelly Sumpter told the Sun. "This was his choice."

In addition to his two sisters, Cunningham is survived by his wife; his son, Dean, 15, and daughter, Kaitlyn, 12; his mother; and two brothers.

Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.

Kaitlyn, 12, left, and Dean Cunningham, 15, react at the burial of their father at Arlington National Cemetery. Army Sgt. Darren Cunningham died

in mortar attack.